Night-time in Harlem, November 4, 2008. People from all over New York were gathering in this neighbourhood as election results became clear. And not just from New York. Obama was going to be the first African-American president of the United States and Harlem was the celebrated hub of African-American life and culture. Songs have been written about it. The elections were going to be a historic moment in world history. And here in Harlem, you would get a chance to be part of that history.
We walked out of our building and turned a corner. There before us was 125th Street and Broadway, full of people celebrating. Hundreds of people. Black and white, if you cared to note. And us.
So much has been written about how that exact moment of history unfurled in that exact spot — so much inspired, poetic stuff — that there is little point for me to describe that scene in yet more words. Suffice it to say that the speeches were thankfully over, and people were laughing and dancing and marching – I should stop right about now.
“Yes, we can! Yes, we can!” people chanted. Or was it “did”? News reports say “Yes, we did!”, but I don’t remember noticing the distinction at the time, as words got lost in the resounding cheers. “Yes, you can!” I would respond, wishing to participate, but not in inapt ways.
“O Ba Ma! O Ba Ma!” chants echoed around us. Ok — now what? “(Ya) Hussein, O Ba Ma!” I tacked on, on a silly whim, only to find my friends skitter away in laughing remonstrance. After the fuss made over Obama’s remarkable ancestry during the Republican campaign, shouting out his full name into that New York night, in a manner reminiscent of Muharram processions, felt rather heady; a sort of double rebellion. The boys appeared not too keen to join in. We were here from Karachi and Peshawar on a scholarship, and it would be stupid to do anything to scuttle that. Men had to more careful, anyway, bearing in mind the kind of questions immigration officials could put to them right in the middle of a friendly chat: “So… where’s Osama?”
So, why the potentially rash show of flippancy at such a momentous occasion? Why not just chant what everyone else was chanting? I could blame it on the time of the night, on being in the midst of such sheer intoxicated — and intoxicating — revelry. That’s what people say about us South Asians (and possibly also about others): that we don’t even need the aid of alcohol to sing and to dance, and, most importantly, to shoot off our mouths.
Reflecting over that moment, I think the urge went much deeper than that. It was still about appreciation. Appreciation of a historic victory. But appreciation whilst keeping in mind the boundaries of historical experience. And this at the very moment that, what seemed like, the entire world enthusiastically celebrated the triumph of tearing down barriers and erasing boundaries.
America was in tears and Africa jubilant. Europe was in the grip of Obama-mania and Asia was also showing solidarity. Obama’s electoral victory was being interpreted as a universal triumph, a true testimony of human potential.
So why couldn’t we, who were there in the eye of that wonderful, wonderful storm, just overcome our inhibitions and shout along with everyone else: “O Ba Ma! O Ba Ma!”? Perhaps because this one really was not our war. For us, who had been neither perpetrators nor victims of racial injustice in a relevant historical context — though, we may still have plenty of other sins to atone for — should the quality of excitement at Obama’s victory be the same mixture of “jubilation, relief, joy, vindication and love” as that experienced by those all around us?
These things can, however, be hard to explain to people who are determined to try to understand both your major anguish and your petty sufferings through the prism of ‘a person of colour’. I recall remarking to my Indian professor that the race/ethnicity form in certain US universities is the most vulgar official document I have ever had to fill out in my life. However benign its intentions may be, it forces you to think seriously about arbitrarily divisive classifications you have never had to ponder over before. And between the euphemisms and the particularity of perspective inherent in terms like Caucasian, Asian and Middle Eastern, a person from a place like Pakistan can be left feeling quite confused.
A limited ability to share a sense of historical vindication was one barrier to our entering whole-hardheartedly into the spirit of that particular US election. The second was that - we were alienated. And we stoked those feelings by huddling together that first winter in an aggrieved, shivering little group filled with such anger at ourselves and at others. Filled with anxiety over events at homes, over ambivalent feelings about the Swat operation; filled with guilt about accepting State department scholarships at a time when drone strikes were increasingly becoming an issue and the culpability of our own government was not quite so clear. At ‘Af-Pak’ (how we detested that term) conferences at various Ivy League universities, we would see utter quacks posing at Pakistan ‘experts’ and would become agitated at the tenor of discussion, while our agitation, combined with an excess of polite consideration for the views of hosts and elders, would render us inarticulate and unable to launch a coherent critique.